Figure 1: Photo of Short-finned pilot whale spyhopping. Source: Sajikumar et al. (2014).

Figure 1: Photo of Short-finned pilot whale spyhopping. Source: Sajikumar et al. (2014).

For information on how to detect pilot whales underwater, see www.c-podclickdetector.com.

Pilot whales are highly social animals, and often associate with other dolphin and whale species. Common behaviours include spyhopping (when whales hold their heads above the water to view above the surface, Figure 1.) and logging (resting, often closely together and drifting).

Pilot whales are seen often spouting (condensing water when breathing out from their blowhole, which is their nose, located on the top of their head), breaching (jumping vertically out the water and slapping the water’s surface on the return entry) and tail slapping or lobtailing (slapping the water’s surface with their flukes whilst diving (also termed ‘sounding’). They also use social reassuring behaviours such as body contacts and flipper rubbing. They have been observed recently ‘mobbing’ predators such as killer whales, whereby individuals group together and travel towards a perceived threat, causing the threat to move away.

Studying pilot whale behaviour

Pilot whale behaviour can be studied using a variety of methods including visual watches using Marine Mammal Observers. Many of the methods used to study this species of whale are common to many other toothed whales and dolphins, and more information on this can be found in the tools section of our website www.osc.co.uk/tools.

Pilot whale noises

Pilot whales make a variety of noises (vocalisations or) to communication with each other and echolocation (sonar, the equivalent of radar), for locating prey. Long-finned pilot whales produce clicks, whistles and pulsed calls (pulsing is when the noise is turned on and off again very quickly) whereas short-finned pilot whales emit clicks, pulses, whistles and tonal calls (tonal calls sound like a long notes on a flute). Calls vary depending on which behaviour they are performing socially or for work (e.g. hunting, diving etc.). For a video of pilot whales vocalising, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=VI2VqZYsW_k.

Recording pilot whales using click detectors and PAM

Pilot whale vocalisations can be studied using Passive Acoustic Monitoring systems (PAM) such as C-PODs or T-PODs, which are a battery powered stationary underwater microphones called hydrophones placed in the water to detect and record marine mammal sounds. PODs can even be programmed to detect vocalisations of specific species. For a video of Victoria Todd deploying a Passive Acoustic Monitoring system, see  www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOkKdgNeFsY. For an interesting, but unrelated video on Humpback whales whispering, see: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/04/humpback-calves-whisper-avoid-being-heard-killer-whales-listen-here.


Military SONAR can potentially drown out or ‘mask’ pilot whale calls, which could confuse (disorientate) and separate individuals from relocating their pods, potentially leading them to mass strand.


Pilots whales have 8-13 pairs of sharp pointed teeth for slippery prey like squid and schooling fish such mackerel and herring. They feed in groups, synchronising their swimming and breathing, to herd their prey. An individual leads them which contributes to their common name, pilot-whales.

Pilot whales are deep divers, feeding at depths of 500-1000 m, and like many odontocetes, use echolocation, to locate and capture prey. Once they find their prey, they sprint downwards to capture it, similar to birds of prey. For a video of pilot whales deep diving, see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=camdORXMycQ

For more information on marine mammals in general and information on a potential career in the subject, please see: www.osc.co.uk.


Sajikumar, K, Ragesh, N & Mohammed, KS (2014): Behaviour of Short-Finned Pilot Whales, Globiephala macrorhynchus (Mammalia: Cetartiodactyla: Delphinidae) in the Southeastern Arabian Sea. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 6(11), pp. 6488–6492.

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